How do you warm up when it's cold outside? Bundle up, dress warmly, and stay out of drafts, right?
That is right, partly. But, lacking central heating, ancient peoples believed that keeping the body warm also comes from within, and that certain foods could raise the body's temperature. Some of these, not coincidentally, are seasonal foods like legumes and root vegetables. Some are spices, like ginger and cloves.
Today we know that much of what they guessed from observation and intuition does indeed have scientific backing. Eating generates heat and helps warm your body, while the overall warming effect of food known as thermogenesis ("heat making"), is due to energy released during digestion. If you find yourself feeling hungrier in winter than in the summer, don't chalk it up to your imagination; a drop in body temperature does stimulate the appetite.
So, what's best to eat in winter, and what's good to avoid?
Cold foods and fluids such as ice cream or cola require energy to bring them up to a viable temperature before digestion. In summer, when you want to cool off, this may not be a problem, but in winter, when the body needs to deal with cold both internally and externally, the attempt to conserve heat means a reduction of blood flow to your skin surface, and specifically to the extremities. That's why in winter your fingers and toes are the first to feel cold.
Eastern medical theories, rather than looking at the temperature of foods when you eat them, consider foods to have innate cooling or heating qualities, that have differing energy effects on the metabolism post-digestively.
Uncooked fruits and vegetables, for example, are considered energetically cold foods. Quickly digested and excreted, they may initially provide a lift, but not long-lasting energy and warmth. Cooked vegetables, on the other hand, particularly those that grow beneath the surface of the ground (root vegetables), are considered some of the most desirable foods for winter.
Is that kooky or not? Actually, not. Mother Nature seems to have provided human beings with specific seasonal raw materials to meet the nutritional needs of each climate.
Before this modern era when almost every kind of food is shipped in to local markets from around the world, people in cold-winter climates subsisted on foods grown well into the colder months, including carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and hearty winter greens like kale and cabbage.
Together with grains and legumes, which also fared well with long storage, they could construct a diet of "warming foods" to see them through the winter months. Cooked and served warm, these foods are most easily digested by the body, allowing the heat created by digestion to help improve circulation and body warmth.
Winter is also an excellent time to incorporate spices like ginger, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and cloves into your daily diet. These spices contain phytonutrients, anti-microbial and/or anti-inflammatory properties.
Spices in the warm-hot category, including ginger, cinnamon and cloves (which, incidentally, taste great in hot cider, gingerbread and other baked goods) help to increase digestive enzymes, and boost the assimilation of nutrients. Other spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, dill seed and anise seed aid digestion, particularly in the case of hard-to-digest beans.
The great 12th-century Jewish physician Rambam (Maimonides) believed that black mustard seeds and asafetida are also "warm" spices that can be very helpful during winter to aid digestion and help provide relief of winter ills and chills.
Here are some easy, luscious recipes to help chase off the winter cold. First, a method of cooking chicken that tenderizes the chicken breast and enhances flavor. For a faster version, pound the chicken breast pieces before rubbing with the spice mixture.
Grilled Chicken Breast With Warming Spices
1 large skinless, boneless chicken breast
1 large clove garlic, pressed
1 packed teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne or chili cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Divide chicken breast into two sections. Rinse and pat dry. In a rimmed dish, mix the garlic, spices and sesame oil and rub into the chicken breast on all sides. It may be cooked immediately, but if you're not in a hurry, cover and chill for 30 minutes. (It may also be prepared several hours ahead of time).
Heat a heavy grill pan with ridges. Grill the chicken breast pieces on medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, till distinct grill marks appear. Cover and cook over very low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Garnish with basil and serve with brown rice or other whole grain.
Makes 2 servings.
The following wonderful combination is both delicious and nutritious. It's chock-full of fiber and healthy warming spices, and it's very versatile. You can use it as a filling for phyllo or puff pastry, tortillas or toasted pita; it can be a base on which to serve broiled fish or meat. Add boiling water if you like and - voila! - it becomes a soup.
Multi-Purpose Curried Split-Pea Puree
½ pound split peas
1 medium potato, scrubbed and thickly sliced
1 bay leaf
3 cups water
1½ teaspoons honey
¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt to taste
Pick over the split peas and place in a strainer. Rinse and transfer to a medium pot with the potato, bay leaf and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil and cook, partially covered, over low heat until the split peas are soft, about 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that develops on top. Drain, but reserve any remaining cooking water. Remove the bay leaf; place split peas in a food processor together with the honey, seasonings and spices. Process the mixture to desired consistency, adding reserved cooking water, if needed. May be stored in a covered container up to 3 days in the refrigerator.
Makes 2½ cups.
Soothing and very tasty, this casserole is one of the easiest recipes to make once you've prepared the vegetables, and one of the healthiest.
2 cups sliced carrots
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups peeled, cubed celeriac
1 cup peeled, diced turnip or parsnip
1½ cup unpeeled, cubed new potatoes
1 cup peeled, cubed sweet potato
2 cups water
2 bay leaves
3 to 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard (with seeds, if possible)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 to 3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Italian parsley, cilantro or dill to garnish, as desired
In a medium-large saucepan, place vegetables, water and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften. Stir gently during cooking, adding a little extra boiling water, if necessary.
Stir in the mustard and garlic and cook an additional 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are done. Remove from heat and stir in the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the desired herb just before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
(Recipe from "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking" by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer, Harper-Collins, 2004)